Ian Donaldson’s The Rapes of Lucretia is a book so rich in ideas that a review can only be unfairly perfunctory. It starts from ancient accounts of the rape of Lucretia and tracks the transformations of the myth through two millennia. This is no wearisome catalogue, no tedious grinding of PhD mills. Donaldson is, as he puts it, ‘especially interested in the close relationship that may exist between the creative and the philosophical processes of mind; between art and argument’. What emerges is a sturdy contribution to the history of ideas, a book showing how a myth which sustained Roman ideas of heroism and political liberty was used at different periods of history to reflect and embody changing political and sexual ideas.
Donaldson's use of visual sources is impressive. He is the most useful sort of art critic, showing the reader how a painting works and what to look at. The twenty plates are monochrome and of undistinguished quality. It is largely as a result of Donaldson's analysis that we are able to assess their significance as myth-making images.